Well, it’s all over. The presents have been wrapped, the songs have been sung, the radio stations have returned to regular programming, and the food has been eaten. All those weeks of preparation. All the shopping, stress, and craziness is gone for another year. Christmas 2012 is over, and if I have done the math right, there are about 360 shopping days until Christmas 2013. The question before us this morning is the one I am left with after the video: Christmas really happened and Christmas changed everything, but did it make a difference for me this year? How are we different because Christmas happened?
We have spent December, the season of Advent, our time preparing for Christmas, reminding ourselves Christmas is not our birthday, even though we get the presents. We sought to celebrate a different kind of Christmas. We wanted to focus this Christmas season on Jesus, rather than ourselves. Let’s face it though, it’s not just Christmas when we focus too much on ourselves. We must confess there are times throughout the year when we live as if Christmas never happened. The holiday interrupts our routines for December, but the rest of the year we can get so caught up in our own stuff that we live with little acknowledgment of Jesus’ presence in the world around us.
As we stand on the threshold of new year, we could learn a lesson from the magi who came from the East to honor Jesus. The wise men did three things we ought to emulate (Slaughter 73f):
- “They knelt down and paid him homage” (Matt 2:11). We talked quite a bit throughout this sermon series as we sought to shift our focus toward God and his will for our lives rather than our own; to move beyond trying to make Christmas “perfect” and instead welcoming the perfect Christ into our messy world. This is a practice we ought to continue into the new year.
- “Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts” (Matt 2:11). Last Sunday we talked about Jesus’s wish list. The gifts Jesus wants from us are not grand God-gestures. Rather they are things we can do every day to help those who are hurting – the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the depressed, the lonely, and others. When we serve another we are giving Jesus exactly what he asks of us. We would do well in 2013 to be better about giving these gifts to Jesus.
- Finally, “they left for their own country by another road” (Matt 2:12). Christmas made a difference to the wise men. When they went to Jerusalem looking for the one born king, the magi promised King Herod they would return to tell him where he could find the baby. After meeting Jesus, and having an encounter with God in a dream, they returned home “by another road.” Christmas had changed their lives. They could not be the same. They left traveling a different road.
A Different Road
I like the image of traveling a different road. As a motorcycle rider I, too, am fond of traveling different roads. Often, when it is time to return home after a ride, you will find me in a Starbucks staring into a map app on my phone looking for a creative way home.
This summer Diane and I took a ride to Pueblo. Avoiding the interstate, we had a much more scenic ride down 115 to 50. In Pueblo we enjoyed the Riverwalk where we eventually stopped for lunch. After eating I took out my phone to find a different way to travel home. Since we had traveled there on the west side of 25, I looked for a road on the east side. There I found Overton Road, County 501, which would take us almost all the way to Fountain. Off we went. Overton road was nice for several miles, but then it became a dirt road – not a lot of fun on a 600 pound street bike. I slowed down significantly, and continued on, waiting for the pavement to return, which didn’t happen for many miles.
As a motorcycle rider, I like getting off the beaten path. There is a lot more adventure there (like the bull we saw that day on the wrong side of his fence), and the scenery is much better. As Christians, I believe we are called to follow the example of the Wise Men, to stray from the roads the rest of the world uses, and to journey by a different road. Christmas ought to change our life’s journey.
Throughout the Christmas season many of us have been living indulgently – over-eating, over-spending, over-committing, and generally over-doing it. Indulgence is the norm during the holidays, but statistics tell us it is also a lifestyle that has become prevalent in America the rest of the year. For example, over the last 30 years the average family has gotten smaller, yet the our houses have grown more than 40% larger. We eat out more and spend less time cooking, yet the average kitchen size has doubled. We also see what excessive spending and reliance on credit, to purchase the American dream, has done to our economy (Slaughter 77). Some might say we have fallen into the trap of idolatry, which theologian Paul Tillich defined as giving ultimate value to that which is not ultimate (Slaughter 77).
Jesus taught us to travel a different road. One that was not about indulgence, but generosity; not about ourselves but the Kingdom of God. Jesus taught us we cannot “serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24). Instead he teaches his followers not to worry about material things but to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). Jesus taught us to give the truly ultimate things ultimate value in our lives. He taught, as we talked about last week, how we ought to keep the needs of others, that restorative work of the Kingdom of God, foremost in our lives; to use our resources to feed the hungry, house the homeless, strive for justice, clothe those in need, and to provide healing for those who are broken (physically, spiritually, mentally) rather than building ourselves up.
A Model of Discipleship
You will note there are two axes. The horizontal axis has at one end piety (what we might call spirituality) and the other end mercy (what we might characterize as service). The vertical axis has at one end public and the other end private. This forms four quadrants – (1) public acts of piety or worship; (2) private acts of piety or devotion; (3) public acts of mercy or justice; and (4) private acts of mercy or compassion. The mature disciple lives a life of balanced in all four quadrants.
In last Sunday’s message I shared several times how we cannot separate our faith in God from our responsibility to God’s people. The same is true in the opposite direction – we cannot separate our responsibility to God’s people from our relationship with God. We need to be active in all four quadrants.
Focus on Piety Half
It is fairly common for one to lean more toward one half of the diagram than the other. For some this means a focus on the left, or piety side. A piety focus is concerned with right belief about Jesus, God, and certain issues of the day. When we stay completely on the left side of this diagram, we are missing out on half of that to which God calls us.
There is a troubling passage in Amos that as a worship leader always gets my attention. The prophet Amos is sharing with the people the words of God when he writes:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream
This passage does not mean God doesn’t like our worship. Rather it means our worship and devotion, our piety, ought to lead to acts of mercy.
Think about a time you experienced someone giving you lip-service. Maybe it is an employee who says all the right things, but is not performing the way they should. Or maybe you are a teacher and have experienced a student who is super sweet to you, but then you hear how nasty they are to their peers. Or maybe you have experienced it in a purchase where the seller promised you support, but when there was a problem the customer service was nasty.
This is what God is expressing to his people. Don’t expect God to be pleased when we stay completely on the piety half of the diagram – when our worship and devotion do not match our action. Or as we might say it, when we are not walking our talk. God doesn’t want our worship if it isn’t making any difference in the way we live. We must travel a different path.
On the motorcycle that day, when traveling off the beaten path, I needed to slow down. Slower speeds give better traction and they allow time to change direction when necessary. The same is true in our life journeys. Slow down. So many of us are so busy, moving along at break-neck speed, to the point where every change in the schedule is viewed as an interruption rather than an opportunity.
If you feel like you are missing out on God, as though Christmas didn’t make much difference, I encourage you to slow down. This will give you opportunity to get some traction in your own life and the lives of others, and will allow you to respond to God when he shows up in your life – in the friend who needs to talk or the stranger who needs some assistance.
Focus on Mercy Half
Others of us can get overly focused on the right half of the diagram, where we are all about acts of mercy, and focus very little on the piety side. This is just as dangerous. Our service grows out of our relationship with Christ, and we need to share that with others. Surely our actions speak louder than words, but we also need to testify to the one who has made that change in our lives, so Christ may do that in the life of another.
The question I wrestle with is how my service, as a follower of Christ, is different from the benevolence of others. For example, my children are asked by their school to do service projects called cairns, as part of their middle school and high school experience. How does that differ from the mission projects they participate in with our youth group? The difference between a service project and a mission project is the heart of the servant, and we need to make that heart known. We need to be in worship and study, growing in Jesus, and sharing our faith with others.
I know as soon as I say that, I’m making some of you nervous and feeling guilty. We have seen others talk about Jesus poorly – in ways that make others uncomfortable. So how do we share in a more effective way?
The people I have known who are best at it, are those for whom it is just as natural as talking about their spouse, their favorite coffeehouse, or some great advice they received from a book or friend. It doesn’t usually include a lot Christianese – you know those “church words” – and is filled with “I-statements” as they share their experiences. In the midst of grief, I would much rather hear someone share how their faith helped them through something similar, than hear an annotated theological treatise on what I ought to believe about the afterlife. I think that is why the Bible uses the word “witness” rather than “teach.” Our role is to talk about what we have experienced rather than what is “correct.”
I like the way Mike Slaughter puts it in Christmas Is Not Your Birthday:
You don’t have to try to convince anyone; leave that work to the Holy Spirit. And you don’t have to shove Jesus down anyone’s throat. Jesus himself was not self-aggrandizing when people asked about his significance and power…
Sometimes people will ask me a question about faith that I don’t have an answer for. I simply say, “I don’t know. But come and see the way Jesus is transforming my life and the lives of others.” God will do the rest! (Slaughter)
Witnessing doesn’t have to be intimidating. It is simply speaking about the Jesus we love so dearly, and telling others what he has done for us.
Which path will you travel in the year ahead?
Today we stand at the threshold of a New Year. A great time to examine the road we have been traveling in the year that is concluding, and the road we plan to travel in the year ahead. As we prepare for 2013, it is good for us to take a look at the diagram of discipleship to determine where we spend a good portion of our time, and which quadrants we need to develop.
Before us are two roads. One we have been traveling for a long time. It is well-worn by many travelers and has led us to over-indulgence in ourselves.
The other is the one the Wise Men traveled after Christmas – a different road, off the beaten path, a road that causes us to slow down and interact with others, one that requires time for God and people, one that leads us through all four quadrants of our diagram. Down this road ultimate things are given ultimate value.
Which road will you travel in 2013?
Slaughter, Michael. Christmas Is Not Your Birthday: Experience the Joy of Living and Giving like Jesus. Nashville: Abingdon, 2011. Print.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.